Saturday, June 2, 2012

Robert Caro Drops The Ball

“In attaining this influence, he displayed a genius for discerning a path to power, an utter ruthlessness in destroying obstacles in that path, and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal in moving along it.”
Robert A. Caro, The Path to Power, Introduction

With The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, historian Robert Caro delivers his forth volume in his award winning biography of Lyndon Johnson.  Caro is the biographer of Johnson and has made it his life's work.  The books in the series of noted for their frank and brutally honest portrayal of LBJ who was a complex character–part brilliant politician and manipulator of events, and part madman with outbursts of rage, cruelty, immorality, uncouth manners, dark depressions and narcism.  Caro from the beginning labels Johnson a pathological liar and then precedes to prove it through hundreds of examples of the pathology.  JFK called him a "chronic liar."  RFK said Johnson would lie even when he didn't have to.  He's a sociopath with little regard or respect for other people, only using empathy when it suited his political aims.  LBJ was his own god.  

If I find any fault in these books, it's not in the writing of them or the details presented but in reading about what a despicable person Johnson was and what depths he went to achieve his goal in life and that was the Presidency of the United States.  With a deep sense of inferiority he wore from hard scrabble upbringing in the Texas hill country, he dreamed of being somebody important and being President was it.  Reading about Johnson in a book it's hard to live with him and harder still to imagine how anybody else could in actual life.  If you haven't read these books before then read one and wait a year or more before you read the next.  Distance is needed, least this vile man’s presence comes to find a home in you.

The main problem with The Passage of Power is that Caro appears to have altered the formula for what made his books so great.  His other books are the epitome of truthful biography and excellent historical research, all superbly edited and they represent fine works of literature.  Caro is the man that is going tell us everything and blow it all wide open.  And he does through the first three books.  However, this latest tome is an empty vessel.  I would term it Robert Caro Lite. In the other books there is information on LBJ’s life and deeds that you will not find in any other book.  New discoveries about Johnson’s character and deeds await the reader.  This tome reads like a summary of what it could have been, as if a large amount of detail was sacrificed; there are odd lapses of scholarship; at least one chapter, such asThe Back Stairs, regarding Johnson’s becoming the vice presidential candidate is a confusing mess spurning Johnson’s knack for blackmail; many major issues are not properly dealt with and numerous personalities are paid no heed.

That Thorny Issue
In The Passage of Power, Robert Caro has to deal with a thorny issue for any mainstream historian and that's the Kennedy assassination.  There is an apparent ease of conspiracy thought in the case, the step child of an incomplete and politicized  investigation.  For a Pulitzer Prize winning author such as Caro, conspiracy in the JFK murder is the creepy uncle that one seeks to avoid sitting by at the holiday dinner table.  To be fair, he documented a host of other conspiracies in Johnson's rise to power and fame.  It's just this one conspiracy, that of the Kennedy murder, that is avoided.  Caro just reports what people at the time would have known, that the President was killed and they nabbed a suspect in the murder.  That’s all we’ll be told about the assassination in this book.  The Warren Commission is assembled in this timeline but no report issued; more on that saga in the final installment.  However, I don’t except Caro to do anything but tow the party line.

Robert Caro, the man that was out to leave no stone unturned, has apparently lost his nerve and left many stones where he found them.  Three stones he doesn't touch at all are:  Billy Sol Estes, Malcolm Wallace and Madeline Duncan Brown.  The obvious question here is why all three are avoided and the answer it a simple one–because they all involve conspiracy of one form or the other.  They all share another thing–they are all problematic with troubling stories regarding their involvement.  

But what is quite remarkable is that Caro can't say a word about the growing Billy Sol Estes scandal of 1962 which reached the national media and was a huge story at the time and not a word is said about it.  To be fair, this is a long and convoluted story, too detailed to go into here (see links below), but the implications were enormous and Johnson was in deep trouble.  (Johnson claimed no knowledge of Estes, which is a lie, but during grand jury testimony in 1984, Estes would pin various murder conspiracies, including Kennedy’s death, on Lyndon Johnson.)  On the other side of scandals, the Bobby Baker episode is fully documented as if to throw a bone to Johnson’s bad Karma coming due.  But that wasn't the only fire that needed to be put out so Johnson could save his hide and win his prize.  In many ways, not documenting the Estes affair shows Caro has taken a timid approach to this matter–when he is not ignoring other important issues.   

(And that weak-kneed pattern is quite evident with ignoring Johnson's long term lover Madeline Brown.  Caro has no qualms in mentioning the other two paramours, Alice Glass and Helen Douglas in his earlier works, but can't muster up a single word about Madeline Brown.  Of course Brown alleges the famous meeting of conspirators at Clint Murchison's home in Dallas the night before the assassination and claims her son was sired by LBJ.  Her story is well known with numerous interviews, a TV appearance in the History Channel’s The Men Who Killed Kennedy and her book, Texas in the Morning. It’s juicy conspiracy stuff alright and too scary go there!)

Johnson's Side of the Story
A contradictory incident is Robert Caro's reporting of Johnson's reaction to the first shot being fired.  It's all told from Johnson's perspective, a man we are told in the first book is a pathological liar.  LBJ's testimony was that Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood as soon as he heard the first shot, jumped into the backseat and pushed Johnson to the floor and sat on him for protection.  Youngblood told this same story in sworn testimony to the Warren Commission.  

There are two problems with this.  One, is the famous Altgens photograph, which shows the Presidential limo after the first shot with Kennedy clearly clutching at his throat and also shows the Vice President's car and all that can be seen is Lady Bird and Senator Ralph Yarborough in the back seat looking towards the crowd on the sidewalk.  LBJ is nowhere to be seen.  Youngblood said he was up looking around while holding Johnson down, seeking possible shooters.  That business can't be seen in the photograph either.  Also of note is Lady Bird and Sen. Yarborough’s posture in the car, both looking at the crowd but never down to where Johnson and Youngblood are supposed to be.  Shouldn’t Lady Bird’s focus be on her husband?  It’s as if neither of them are aware what is going on with the backseat tussle or noticing the first shot which by this time, has already been fired.

Even more interesting is that Ralph Yarborough denied this event ever happened, that Youngblood never jumped into the backseat and used his body as a shield for Johnson.  He never mentioned it in his sworn affidavit to the Warren Commission.  He maintained his version of what happened till late in life including a 1980 interview he gave to researcher David Lifton.  Caro said he interviewed Yarborough five times.  And this issue never came up?  If it did it won’t be reported in this book.

So what Caro does is relate only Johnson's side of this affair while never giving the reader Yarborough's dissenting view.  Why not give both sides and let the reader decide?  It’s a perplexing thing to do after giving hundreds of incidents of Johnson's lying.  Even his nickname was "Lying Lyndon" (and in college Bull as in bull shit).  And notice the quote above from the first book’s introduction in regards to a “bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal...”  Yet for some peculiar reason Caro believes LBJ, and wants his readers to believe him as well, despite evidence to the contrary.  

There's a lot more I could say here but I'll pass so I don't go to sleep with an angry heart.  In this book, unlike the others in the series, we are treated to a kinder, gentler, Lyndon Johnson; almost a sympathetic figure.  Poor Lyndon...shunted to the outside, ignored by his Senate colleagues, powerless, lonely, downcast, mocked by the Kennedy insiders and snubbed at every opportunity.  Boo-hoo!  Chickens do come home to roost and with LBJ they would be legion and back breaking in a few years hence.  What fine justice to see the Master Manipulator of people and things cross the ring of fire where he tried everything and it just wasn’t enough.  What a blow to that massive ego!  

The Passage of Power is a mixed bag of highlights and lowlights that assures it will never be the best book in the series.  The other books held new discoveries on the life and times of Lyndon Johnson.  To students of the subject this book is much of what they will already know and excludes a lot that they do know.  Some areas do shine such as Johnson's dealings with the Kennedy clan, particularly Bobby, and how smooth the transition of power was after Kennedy's death.  However, that is not enough to rise above the general ho-hum.

In the end, The Passage of Power does not represent an author at the peak of his form but instead on the wain.  I'm hoping the final book returns to prominence, if that is possible.

Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson:
The Path to Power
Means of Assent
The Master of the Senate
The Passage of Power

Naval Career.  In describing John Kennedy's naval career, Caro disregards the fact that JFK started out in naval intelligence.  As reported in Curt Gentry's biography on J. Edgar Hoover, Kennedy's career in intelligence was compromised with an affair with a married woman, Ingrid Arvad, who was a friend of Hitler's and a suspected Nazi spy.  Hoover had his agents taping the affair in progress and word eventually got back to daddy Joe Kennedy and Jack was sent to the Pacific (Gentry, The Man and the Secrets, p.467-471). 

Stevenson Aide.  Speaking of flaws, the most unusual one in the book is Caro's accounting of a talk LBJ gave the Adlai Stevenson camp in the 1960 campaign, basically demanding that they have nothing to do with Kennedy.  Caro sources the conversation from an unnamed Stevenson aide (p.93).  Since when do historians resort to using unnamed sources to present historical facts?  I don't recall Caro doing this in the earlier books.  Nor do I recall any author doing this in nonfiction.

Billy Sol Estes.  Going back to the Billy Sol Estes scandal, it was mentioned by Ben Bradlee in his book, Conversations With Kennedy on pages 105-106.  Bradlee, a close friend of the President reports that JFK was very much interested in the case that involved on it’s outer reaches the death of Henry Marshall, a Federal agriculture agent that was shot 6 times and originally ruled a suicide which was later changed to homicide.  It was speculated at the time that Henry was killed as an end result to an extramarital affair.  We know now that this was not the case and other researchers have pinned the crime on LBJ crony Malcolm Wallace.  Once again, Robert Caro makes no mention of the controversy surrounding the deceased agent and the resulting fallout.  (Especially ironic since Conversations With Kennedy is listed in the bibliography.)

Sources and Links
The Estes Scandal
Chapter 4, LBJ: The Mastermind of JFK’s Assassination by Philip F. Nelson

Malcolm Wallace Biography

The Men Who Killed Kennedy